Forty years ago, interest in Irish politics or history amongst most of my lecturers at the London School of Economics ended with the 1921 Treaty. At that point Ireland had gone its own way and apart from the vexed question of the North/Northern Ireland/Ulster/the Six Counties, there was not much that caught the attention. But for a brief period at the beginning of the 1980s, there was a spark of interest amongst the academics who taught me.
Ireland had three general elections in eighteen months. Like two old heavyweight boxers trying to pound each other into submission, Charles Haughey and Garret Fitzgerald trod streets, and stood on platforms, and made countless speeches. On 24th November 1982, Garret Fitzgerald gained the upper hand and formed a government that was to last until 1987.
The politics lecturer believed part of the instability in those opening years of the 80s was due to the fact that there was no ideological difference between the two main parties, it was an issue of personalities. He recounted a tale from the European Parliament in 1973. At the formation of the new parliament, it was alleged, both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael had applied to become members of the Christian Democrat grouping at Strasbourg. The story goes that the Fianna Fail application arrived earlier and was placed in an “in tray.” The Fine Gael application arrived later, and was placed in the “in tray” above that of their opponents. It is said that when the letters were opened, the Fine Gael application was considered first and they were admitted to the grouping, leaving Fianna Fail without membership of a significant parliamentary group.
Whether or not the European parliament story has any truth, in the forty years since, no ideological difference between Ireland’s two main parties has emerged. In recent times, both parties embraced the programmes of austerity which inflicted on ordinary people the costs of remedying the damage caused by the bankers. There may have been differences of style, but there were no differences of substance.
The 2020 election has given Sinn Féin the opportunity to bring an end to the political duopoly that emerged from the Irish Civil War.
Mary Lou McDonald can do a deal with Fianna Fail, becoming the junior partner in a coalition government, and allowing Fine Gael to become the opposition party and the beneficiary when voters become disaffected. Should such a choice be made, Sinn Féin’s support would evaporate, as did that of the Green Party in 2011, and the Labour Party in 2016.
The alternative choice for Deputy McDonald is to become leader of the opposition, leaving the two old rivals to settle their differences and offering a chance of an election when the choice is a straight one between her party and the Civil War parties.
It is the latter path that offers the best chance for her party to aspire to pursuing their own manifesto.